Soon-to-be former Governor Scott Walker was never the kind of dominating political actor that assembled a broad coalition of diverse political interests around a durable vision for their common benefit. He was much more a creature of the right-wing Koch-funded Tea Party ascendancy that developed in the vacuum of leadership that was the Obama administration’s response to the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Walker first won Wisconsin’s governorship in 2010 with 53% of the vote, won the recall election in 2012 with 54% of the vote, won again in 2014 with 52% of the vote. His skill was in succeeding at the margins, then exploiting his party’s control of the Legislature and the Supreme Court to reward his friends and punish everyone else. When this model of political polarization finally ran out of steam last week, it was partly because his friends lost some of their enthusiasm for him and more because “everyone else” showed up to vote. But even then, Walker’s loss was only by 1%; he came out on the short end of a 49%-48% split.
Walker got too greedy
Walker’s downfall came from getting greedy, and operating outside of the limits of his very limited skill set. His success in the 2014 election against an uninspiring and under-prepared opponent led him to dream of bigger opportunities on the national stage, but his ill-conceived attempt to run for President in 2016 left him looking like a fool and an opportunist. By that time, a number of his most unpopular policies were catching up with him as well, chief among them:
*Support of GOP initiatives to repeal Obamacare and refusal to expand existing state “Badgercare” benefits. His opposition to coverage for preexisting conditions hurt him — he showed a willingness to let his poorest and most vulnerable constituents suffer needlessly, to defend an ideological principle about “markets” that is dear to nobody but his funders.
*Corporate giveaways, most egregiously the “Foxconn” deal (for details, see David Dayen, “Scott Walker Thought He Could Get Away With Corporate Welfare” The New Republic, November 7, 2018). The article describes the dubious benefit that this scheme will yield, even in the southeast part of the state where the new Foxconn plant will be located, yet taxpayers across the state will effectively be paying for it and Walker’s claims that the whole state would be part of the plant’s supply chain were met with skepticism.
*Cuts to state support for local schools, threatening the survival of rural and small-town school districts. In response, taxpayers across the state have been voting to raise their property taxes to cover operating and capital expenses for their schools. Wisconsin voters focus more passion on their taxes than they do on the Packers, and this has not endeared Walker to them.
*The public employees, especially the teachers, that Walker mugged upon taking office in 2011 did not disappear into thin air. Though their unions were diminished they hung on and tried to stabilize as they plotted revenge.
*The Republicans came to power by exploiting (and expanding) resentments felt by people in rural areas over perceived favoritism extended to urban areas, especially Milwaukee. The racist implications of this are predictable, and once again they led to a situation where Walker was organizing his opposition.
*Fundamentally, most people are no better off than they were eight years ago. Only now, they blame Walker.
Walker’s opponent in this election was the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tony Evers. Evers was first elected to that position in 2009, and again in 2013 and 2017, so he had both experience and credibility as a contender for state office. He is more of a policy wonk than a politician, and though he’s a liberal he’s not the kind of political champion that gets into electoral politics through advocating for the interests of a constituency. Not unlike Walker in 2010, Evers found himself in 2018 at the intersection of preparation and opportunity, riding a wave of opposition to Trump and by association, Walker.
An activist-driven success
Walker’s support slipped in some key counties that he had taken in 2014, but collapsed catastrophically in Dane County (Madison) which is politically liberal in general and has a high concentration of public employees. Walker also lost Milwaukee County and the City of Milwaukee decisively. Turnout in Milwaukee was way up over 2016, and this was the result of a massive effort by unions, non-profits, and community groups to get out the vote in communities of color in the city that largely sat out the 2016 election. Some takeaways:
*This was predominantly an effort based in, and driven by, activists and organizations in the communities. It was not driven by Evers’ campaign or by the Democratic Party more broadly. The campaign per se did not have a strong presence in the communities of color though it was stronger in the suburban areas of the County, outside the city.
*The victory was important because it established some benchmarks for progressives — this is how much money you have to budget to win. This is how many people you have to mobilize, how many doors you have to knock. These are the tactics that work, and this is the timeframe you need to deploy them. These are the groups and the leaders that can get the job done. And of course, the leaders and the groups are still going to be around after the campaign is mothballed; we aren’t going to let Evers or the Democrats forget that they need us and they owe us.
*More importantly, it established that we can do this. This is a fact of interest to funders.
*The victory was also important because winning wins and losing sucks.
However, Evers did not win, nor Walker lose, by much. The Republicans are just as completely in control of the Legislature as they ever were; the Democrats’ efforts to make gains there largely came to nothing. The Republicans also still have a lock on the state Supreme Court. Evers will be need to be fighting an uphill battle to deliver results, or face the disillusionment of the people who turned out in large numbers to vote for him. Any complacency on the part of Evers or the Democrats will be disastrous: across the state there was no “red to purple” change, it was barely red to pink. The Democrats have not consolidated anything, and meanwhile, the Republican model does not depend on winning every election. This may have been the end of the beginning, but it was not yet the beginning of the end, of the right wing in Wisconsin.
The loosely-aligned, informal network of progressive forces in the state expanded our capacity a lot in this effort. The hardest lesson for the left that came out of the 2012 Wisconsin recall election was that we had no chance at political power without a political organization of our own. This election saw the work we’ve done since 2012 to establish a presence in electoral politics independent of the Democratic Party pay off. Now we have to straighten ourselves out, and prepare to scale up. We were throwing spaghetti at the wall with pitchforks, hoping some of it would stick – and some of it did, but that’s not a model that scales well. This was a big win, and an unexpected one, but if we want to keep winning, we must organize ourselves better and we have to improve our reach into the rest of the state beyond Milwaukee.